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Francis POULENC(1899 – 1963)
La Voix humaine (1958)
Julia Migenes (soprano)
Orchestre National de France/Georges Prêtre
Rec: February 1990
WARNER ELATUS 2564 60680-2 [45:04]


Jean Cocteau’s one-act play La Voix humaine was first staged in 1932 by Berthe Bovy at the Comédie Française. This is actually a long monologue by a woman whose lover has left her and whom she telephones for the last time for three quarters of an hour. The play in itself is a real dramatic tour de force calling for a first-class comédienne to make sense of the often colloquial, albeit a bit dated language used by Cocteau. The task is made the more difficult by the absence of a protagonist on stage. So, challenges are plentiful here. What should be said, then, of the near-impossible task of setting it to music? Hervé Dugardin director of Recordi Paris, suggested that Poulenc should set La Voix humaine. This was not the first time that Poulenc collaborated with Cocteau, although Poulenc’s few settings of words by Cocteau are early works (Cocardes – 1919, Le Gendarme incompris – 1920, with Cocteau and Raymond Radiguet, and a short, uncharacteristic song Toréador – 1918), as was the collective work Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel by Cocteau and the Groupe des Six. Of course, when he composed La Voix humaine, Poulenc had already composed a great amount of songs and of vocal music (including his comedy Les Mamelles de Tirésias and his grand opera Le Dialogue des Carmélites), and had consistently and constantly refined his approach to French prosody, that is unequalled so far, and that can at best be compared to Britten’s response to English prosody. Setting La Voix humaine, however, was still a formidable challenge, and it may be safely said that Poulenc magnificently rose to it. (Cocteau later told Poulenc that he had definitively fixed the way to say his words in La Voix humaine, once and for all). The vocal part, mostly set as arioso with brief melodic flights, is remarkably written for the voice and is superbly supported by a subtle, transparent and constantly varied orchestral writing that is quintessentially Poulenc throughout, and that never drowns the voice, thus allowing for each word to be clearly heard. Singing La Voix humaine, too, is another formidable challenge for the singer who has to navigate through a whole range of emotions while maintaining the natural flow of both words and music.

The first recording of La Voix humaine was made many years ago by Denise Duval with Georges Prêtre and the Orchestre National de l’Opéra-Comique (on EMI). Denise Duval gave the first performances of the work and was close to Poulenc’s heart, at least in artistic terms. (She also sang and recorded Les Mamelles de Tirésias also for EMI but with André Cluytens this time.) So, her performance remains the model of any performance of La Voix humaine; and, fortunately enough, her recorded performance (first published in 1959) is still available in CD format.

Now, what about the present performance? To tell you the truth, I was at first a bit diffident, particularly when considering Migenes’ later career. Now, as far as I can judge, Julia Migenes superbly rises to the occasion. She is well served by her excellent French pronunciation and her acting skills, and is confidently supported by that arch-Poulenc conductor, Georges Prêtre for whom the music holds no secrets. I had not heard La Voix humaine for a long time, and I was delighted to hear it again in an entirely convincing reading such as this one.

Hubert Culot

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